Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games: Trial by Water

Skulduggery or integrity, spin or truth: these are the options facing Huon Valley councillors. Tomorrow evening (November 10), at council’s monthly meeting, they will have to deal with the dilemma of whether to work in the best interests of the people they represent or to enter into a conspiracy to obfuscate and deceive those same people in the interests of preserving the “reputation of both Southern Water and your council”.

The councillors’ dilemma is embodied in agenda item “15.035/10* Southern Water Media and Communication Protocol”.

On the surface, it all looks fairly innocent: Southern Water — an organisation hatched in a hurry and thrown together last year by the Bartlett Government to take over the water/sewerage duties of 13 southern Tasmanian councils — is angling to establish a coalition front to respond to media probing of its activities.

It is trying to do this by getting the 13 southern councils that own it to agree to a “Southern Water Media and Communication Protocol”. The protocol (still tagged “draft” on the HVC’s website) reflects many characteristics of 21st-century spin-doctoring.

Innocently, it begins by stating: “From time to time, Southern water and our owner councils may be dealing with the media on a range of issues. These may be projects or achievements we wish to promote in a pro-active way or they may be reactive issues, where we have been approached by the media for a comment on a potentially negative or contentious issue.”

Then it warms to the real aim of the draft protocol: “The way in which these events are handled could have a significant impact on the reputation of both Southern Water and your council . . .”

Maybe that’s not a bad intent in itself, but surely that sentence also needs words such as “and if we are sprung for doing something really dastardly, we will own up quick-smart, dispose of or discipline the offenders and put to rights whatever we have stuffed up”?

As a come-on to inter-institution understanding (predictably, no mention of the rights of the ratepayer-owners of SW), the draft protocol says: “The chairman of Southern Water and the mayor . . . recognise the need to establish an open and co-operative approach on media and communications issues affecting our two organisations.”

And a sop: “. . . our joint responsibilities in ensuring the provision of high-quality services to customers and ratepayers, particularly in the area of billing, building and development”.

More sinister: “While this protocol deals specifically with communication issues, the main elements may also be useful in guiding the management of the relationship between our two organisations in a much broader sphere.”

Those last three words — “in a much broader sphere” — set danger signals flashing.

Among ways to support the protocol’s objectives, SW “undertakes”, among other things, to alert the “GM or delegated council officer” to any approach from the media “impacting on the relationship between the council and the corporation”; to advise either of the “proposed response”; “provide briefings, on request, for the mayor, councillors and council staff” on progress with projects; to invite councillors to “attend media events/community briefings” involving projects; to provide “positive commentary” in the SW employee newsletter; and provide advance notification of the “roll-out of new Southern Water policies . . .”

Reciprocally, the council undertakes, among other things, to “alert” SW to “any approach from the media that may impact on the relationship between the corporation and council” and to “publicly acknowledge the achievements” of SW in “further developing water and wastewater assets”.

In agenda item 15.035/10*, a council staff report provides background that says it is likely that council and Southern Water may be approached by the media to make comment on contentious issues that may “impact negatively on each of the businesses” (since when has HVC been a “business”?) and goes on to say that as SW “is undertaking a range of works within the Huon Valley . . . it is timely that a written understanding be developed between [SW and council] in relation to external communications”.

Nothing much exceptionable there. It’s what is missing from the protocol that is exceptionable.

Where is there a reference to the interests of the people who own these two assets (or, in the case of Southern Water, a potential huge liability)? Where in the protocol does SW or the council acknowledge that both organisations exist to “serve” the people of southern Tasmania?

Certainly, they do not have the right to organise between themselves to pull the wool over the eyes of the people simply to preserve their own “reputations” when “contentious” or “negative” situations arise.

The HVC staff report recommends “approval be provided to enter into the protocol as it provides a written understanding to guide how the organisations will co-operate with respect to communications in the future”.

And it says, “consultations have been held with the council’s community relations officer”, whose job, it may reasonably be assumed, will be to get out among the people and convince them that they have nothing to fear from this self-serving institutional agreement.

Under “risk implications”, the council staff report says: “The risk in not entering into a media and communication protocol is that misunderstandings and a lack of clarity may result”.

That may be true. What the report doesn’t say is that, without an SW-HVC media protocol, the community might have a better chance of getting a clearer picture of what is going on with Southern Water, an organisation that has all the hallmarks of an institution that, in the near future, is going to be costing ratepayers and taxpayers millions of dollars for delivering 20th-century-style projects when 21st-century solutions are needed.

What the staff recommendation for Wednesday’s council meeting calls for is for the “mayor to be authorised to sign the [remember, still-draft] media and communication protocol” and a “signing ceremony be held for the signing of the . . . protocol”.

From what is to be gleaned from the council’s staff report and the draft protocol, an arrangement of this nature would not only stifle all 13 southern councils from criticising SW, it would keep secret from the public dealings between council and SW staff.

For the moment, there is a get-out clause in the draft: “It is proposed that the effectiveness of this protocol should be reviewed after a six-month period to ensure it is delivering in accordance with our communication principles . . .”

If SW has “communication principles”, there should be something in the protocol to indicate that it is designed to “deliver in the interests of the people”.

Huon Valley Council will be delivering yet another disservice to the people of the valley if it goes along with SW’s ploy by agreeing to sign the protocol.

As an owner of Southern Water, Huon Valley Council should be careful that it does not render itself unable to monitor the activities of, or pass judgement on, this yet unproven public utility.

Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of a political organisation.